• Categories

  • Archives

    « Home

    San Francisco Chronicle: Tiburon may install license plate cameras

    The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a town near the San Francisco Bay “is poised to do something unprecedented: use cameras to record the license plate number of every vehicle that crosses city limits.” I have written about license plate scanners and their implications for privacy and civil liberties before.

    Tiburon’s camera idea is a marriage of technology, policing and distinct geography.

    Situated on a peninsula, Tiburon’s hillside homes and waterfront shops are accessible by only two roads, allowing police to point the special cameras known as license plate readers at every lane that leads into and out of the town of 8,800.

    The readers, which use character recognition software, can compare plates to databases of cars that have been stolen or linked to crimes, then immediately notify police of matches, said Police Chief Michael Cronin.

    If someone burglarized a Tiburon home at 3 a.m. one morning, he said, detectives could consult the devices and find out who came to town in the hours before – and who rolled out soon after. […]

    If the Town Council gives final approval, Curran said, officials hope to install the readers on Tiburon Boulevard and Paradise Drive by late fall.

    Tiburon plans to spend grant funds on the project and ask two other governments that could benefit from it to contribute to an expected price tag of $100,000 – the city of Belvedere, a bump of land on the southeastern edge of Tiburon, and Marin County.

    I am glad that the town is having a public discussion about the license plate scanners, including restrictions on the data collected. City officials released a fact sheet (pdf) on the scanners, which includes a section on privacy.

    Will the system invade privacy?
    No. It is well established that one does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy driving a car down a public street such as Tiburon Boulevard. License plates are required to be posted on vehicles precisely so that they can be easily and publicly identified. Anyone can stand by the side of the road and photograph passing traffic. Because the camera will only be photographing the rear of vehicles, it will not be able to create a record of its occupants. Unless one is driving a vehicle that has been identified by the TPD in connection with a crime, his or her plate number will simply be one of thousands captured briefly (30-60 days) for review if a subsequent crime investigation so warrants.

    This doesn’t answer a fundamental problem with a system of constant surveillance: Constant surveillance treats all individuals as if they are already considered suspicious or guilty — suspicious enough for them to be treated like criminals. Ubiquitous surveillance occurs in certain situations, such as prisons. Do we really want people driving or walking in public to become as watched and tracked as prisoners?

    Getting the public to accept the always-on surveillance system initially would be the hard part. Changing the rules of the system later would be easy. It would be simple for police and government officials to later decide to keep the data for longer than 30 to 60 days, to create more uses for the data or to allow more types of government personnel to access the data. The data is already being collected, they would likely say, so why not get as much use as possible out of it?

    7 Responses to “San Francisco Chronicle: Tiburon may install license plate cameras”

    1. Common Sense Says:

      So let me understand this question of “Constant surveillance treats all individuals as if they are already considered suspicious or guilty”. Does this mean bank cameras should also not be allowed, or for that matter all business owners should remove in store security cameras? The average person is photographed 7 times a day in various travels, bank 7 11 stores, ATM machines ect. Where is this logic going? And finally.. lisense plates are public property and not owned by people.

      The police always have the right to look up a lisense plate, this technology just makes it a little more timley…ever think it could save a life?

    2. Privacy Lives Says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      First, please do not conflate surveillance by the government with surveillance by private companies. There are problems with both forms of surveillance, but there are also differences in why each would conduct surveillance — private companies’ surveillance are usually limited to their geographic area and narrower crime-prevention reasons. Currently, all of the cameras for companies are not banded together, so all people would not be able to be constantly tracked from 7-11 to an ATM five blocks away to other destinations unless those companies pooled their resources. I hope they never will.
      Second, the police do have the right to look up a license plate. But, this is far beyond that. They are linking license-plate data, which is an identifier, with entrance and exit information, and keeping that information in a database, though people have done nothing wrong. This allows for the mass tracking of innocent individuals, which I do not believe they have the right to do.
      Third, yes, it might save a life. But, these constant surveillance systems aren’t magically appearing — the money for initial setup and continuing upkeep is being taking away from something else. What about all the other lives that might not be saved because we’re diverting scarce economic and manpower resources to this, as opposed to more proven crime-fighting techniques, such as having more officers on the streets to stop crimes as they occur?

    3. thanatos Says:

      “Melissa Ngo, a privacy rights attorney and consultant who publishes, said she is not aware of a situation where a town is keeping a record of all visitors.”

      Try London. They call it ‘Congestion Charging’ (

      Every vehicle within the congestion zone is photographed, its registration read by OCR and cross-referenced in a database. If the congestion charge (£8) has been paid for that vehicle’s tag, the number is ignored. If not, the number is held. After a day, the charge goes up to £10. A day after that, a penalty notice (PCN) for £120 is issued to the registered owner (if you pay within 14 days, you only pay half – £60). After 28 days, a Charge Certificate (£180 penalty) is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle. 21 days after that, if the fee has not been satisfied, the issue is handed to the Courts and the local Bailiffs will deal with it. If a vehicle with 3 PCNs against it is photographed, it will be immobilized (booted) or towed. £70 to unboot, £200 towing fee with £40/day storage fee.

      Nobody cares who was driving the vehicle. The owner is liable.

      Perhaps the comment meant ‘no town in the USA’?

    4. Privacy Lives Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Yes, I was thinking only of U.S. cities when I was being interviewed, but I don’t believe there are any international cities that have such a tracking system either. In London, there is tracking of vehicles in congestion zones, but there isn’t tracking of all vehicles as they enter into or exit out of the city limits. New York City is attempting to set up a similar system for parts of Manhattan, but not for the entire city; the NYCLU has filed suit.

    5. An Onymous Says:

      Ms Ngo,

      You had, as many others say, “you are innocent until proven guilty” That been the case, why is a person arrested before being proven guilty? Only guilty persons should be arrested. I believe that cameras to prevent crime in this times is acceptable. European countries have been using them for years and it has proven to be a crime deterrent. Besides, anyone that thinks the government doesn’t know your life history is been naive. I was one of those persons until I applied for SS and found out that answers to questions presented to me, were already in the computer! Answers that by the way I had forgoten about ’cause they were from situations that occurred at least 40 years ago!

    6. Privacy Lives Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      A person is arrested when there is some evidence that he or she has committed or will soon commit a crime. There is no evidence that every single person driving into or out of Tiburon, Calif., has committed or will soon commit a crime. But, the constant video surveillance means that every single person will be treated as if there is such evidence; they will be treated as suspects of as-yet-unknown or -unforeseen crimes.

      Yes, European countries have been using camera surveillance systems for years, but there is no evidence that cameras have a substantial effect on crime. In fact, reports show cameras do not have a significant effect on crime. These reports (pdf) were produced by entities such as the UK Home Office (comparable to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security), which had every incentive to prove that camera surveillance did decrease crime. You can find out more here (pdf) and here.

      I do not believe that camera surveillance systems are worth the cost in terms of money, manpower or civil liberties.

    7. Kyle Says:

      “You had, as many others say, “you are innocent until proven guilty” That been the case, why is a person arrested before being proven guilty? Only guilty persons should be arrested.”

      The police do NOT just go around arresting people. They must first compile evidence against you before treating you as a suspect. In the case of public video surveillance, everyone is treated as a suspect simply for being in public. Your “the government is watching you” anyway argument just goes to show how accepting people are of what should be considered a gross infraction of our collective right to privacy.

      Before the government starts installing cameras to monitor me, I want cameras following every government official so that I can keep MY eyes on THEM. That might be a fair trade.

      Interesting blog, Melissa. Bookmarked it!

    Leave a Reply